House Hacks Away at Environmental Regulations

In two-day binge, the GOP greased the way for drilling and fracking.

Cole Stangler

An oil well near Tioga, North Dakota. (Photo by Karen Bleier/AFP/Getty Images)

This week, the House of Representatives passed three climate-related bills designed to target and weaken federal environmental regulations: Together they speed up the permitting process for cross-country natural gas pipelines and for drilling on federal lands; impose fines on those wanting to protest the government’s decisions to grant drilling permits; and undercut pending federal fracking regulations.

The legislation imposes a $5,000 fee on anybody who files an administrative appeal to protest the federal government’s decision to issue a permit.

Each of the bills’ Republican sponsors have painted their legislative initiative as necessary fixes to the Obama administration’s regulatory overreach — a claim that’s heavily disputed by Athan Manuel, the Sierra Club’s director of lands protection.

These bills are all meant to fix problems that don’t exist,” Manuel says. There’s this perception that the Obama administration is holding back the oil and gas industry, when it’s not true. They get plenty of permits. … The oil industry’s making lots of money. And they don’t have a lack of access to areas to drill.”

The largest and most sweeping of the legislative efforts, the Federal Lands Jobs and Energy Security Act, which passed on Wednesday by a 228-192 margin, gives the Department of the Interior sixty days to approve applications from oil and gas companies to drill on federal land. If the DOI doesn’t issue a decision in that time, the application is automatically approved. The bill, introduced by Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-Col.), also imposes a $5,000 fee on anybody who files an administrative appeal to protest the federal government’s decision to issue a permit or not — a practice that citizens, consumer advocacy groups and environmental activists often take advantage of.

The notion that … we have to pay up for that is ridiculous,” says Bobby McEnaney, a senior lands analyst for the Natural Resources Defense Council. Particularly when you contrast that with what we’re talking about — an industry that is the most moneyed industry on the planet that has unlimited resources to influence administrative decisions, political decisions, local government. One of the few tools that citizens have on their own is this vested right to participate in the administrative process on how their lands will be managed. Absent that you end up … turning the federal lands into a quasi-oil state, where the decisions that are made in the interests of the oil and gas industry first and everybody else second.” 

McEnaney says that appeal process has previously proven quite valuable.” He points to how earlier this month, in response to an appeal, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) cancelled a proposal to auction off drilling permits in the San Rafael Swell wilderness area in Utah.

Among other things, the bill also opens up a minimum of 125,000 acres of federal land for the commercial development of oil shale — an unconventional energy source considered more environmentally damaging than crude oil because of the intensive heating process that is required to make the fuel viable for transportation and consumption. And in a voice-vote, the House passed an amendment offered by Rep. Doc Hastings (R-Wash.) that halves the BLM’s existing $10 million budget for wind and solar permitting on public land.

Meanwhile, the Protecting States’ Rights to Promote American Energy Security Act is a direct attack on the federal government’s ongoing efforts to draft the first-ever nation-wide regulations of hydraulic fracturing, a process whereby companies inject a mixture of chemicals, water and sand into the ground in order to extract oil and gas. As a result of public health concerns associated with fracking, the BLM is at work drafting rules regulating the practice on public lands. But Bill Flores’ (R-Texas) bill, which passed by a 235-187 vote, prohibits the enforcement of federal fracking regulations in any state that already has its own state oversight in place. Critics say that, in practice, that would nullify the BLM’s forthcoming regulations, since the open-ended legislative language doesn’t specify what would qualify as a proper state regulation.

The fracking bill is particularly frustrating for environmentalists because most of them consider the BLM’s pending regulations extremely weak to begin with. Even the most stringent part of the latest draft version simply requires that companies disclose what kind of chemicals they’re injecting into the ground. And that provision is scaled back from the first version. The latest draft requires well operators to disclose chemicals after-the-fact and includes broad exemptions for companies who want to avoid sharing trade secrets.” Fracking foes say this regulatory retreat is a result of a very successful lobbying effort from energy companies.

Manuel of the Sierra Club says that House Republicans are going above and beyond what the fracking industry wants — in other words, the vote is more of a messaging tactic to their voter base who want to see the GOP take on the administration. The industry has gotten quite a bit of what they wanted in these proposed fracking rules,” he says. I don’t think they feel shut out of the process and need this kind of intervention from the House to advocate for their positions. They’re doing it the old-fashioned way, by hammering and lobbying the administration.”

The last of the bills to pass, which did so by a 252-165 margin, the Natural Gas Pipeline Permitting Reform Act, imposes a 12-month deadline on the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to approve or deny applications for natural gas pipelines. Other regulatory agencies would have only 90 days to weigh in after the FERC releases an environmental review of the proposed project. If any of the agencies fail to meet those deadlines, the pipeline under consideration is automatically approved. 

It’s highly unlikely that any of the bills could pass the Senate in its current form. The White House has also issued veto threats on all three. But there may be some limited bipartisan support in the Senate for least a couple of the provisions passed this week.

For instance, there’s already a version of the fracking bill in the Senate — the Empower States Act introduced by John Hoeven (R-N.D.) in August. That legislation has four co-sponsors, including Democrats Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) and Mary Landrieu (D-La.).

And as Politico reported on Thursday, the author of the gas pipeline bill, Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-Kan.) is optimistic that his legislation could get some traction through a potential compromise in the Senate, where Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) has expressed interest in addressing methane leaks on pipelines. Wyden’s office, however, told reporters there are no plans to hold hearings on the topic anytime soon.

For Kate Fried, water policy communications director of Food and Water Watch, the week’s proceedings in the House are a sobering reminder of the energy industry’s oversized political influence. She points to a study released this week by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington that documents a 231 percent spike in the fracking industry’s political contributions between 2004 and 2012. In the most recent election cycle, the report found, companies operating hydraulically fractured wells and the trade associations representing them gave $6.9 million to Congressional candidates.

Moreover, the congressmen who led this week’s trio of energy bills are some of the biggest recipients of campaign cash from oil and gas companies in the House. In the last election cycle, Pompeo and Flores took in $302,300 and $202,506 respectively from such companies, making both of them among the top 20 recipients of industry money in the lower chamber. Lamborn, for his part, got more campaign donations from oil and gas companies than any other industry during his most recent re-election campaign.

Like Fried, the NRDC’s McEnaney says this week’s votes reveal that the fossil fuel industry holds enormous sway over Congress.

It shows how entrenched the oil and gas industry is when it comes to moving Congress,” says McEnaney. Given all the things that Congress should be doing — in particular working on a budget and appropriations — they are focused on presenting a peel-back of all the environmental laws that are out there in order to facilitate oil and gas industry interests.”

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Cole Stangler writes about labor and the environment. His reporting has also appeared in The Nation, VICE, The New Republic and International Business Times. He lives in Paris, France. He can be reached at cole[at] Follow him @colestangler.
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